Trying to improve red zone efficiency, Irish get tricky

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Trying to improve red zone efficiency, Irish get tricky

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- In an effort to combat one of the worst red zone touchdown rates in the nation, Notre Dame's offense has tried some new looks in practice leading up to the BCS Championship. The actual specifics aren't important, since everything the media saw this week in South Florida was calculated. More importantly, there's a greater sense of urgency permeating Notre Dame's offense when it gets inside the red zone.

For a team that's only found the end zone 46 percent of the time when its offense gets inside its opponents' 20-yard line, something had to change.

"I think once we got to the red zone, for a lot of people, it was 'let's get in the end zone' but it wasn't -- I don't want to say there wasn't a want to, but it wasn't do-or-die for us," wide receiver T.J. Jones said. "And that's what we've established.

"It's taken that month to work on what you do in the red zone to flip your mindset when you're in the red zone to know it's do-or-die," he added.

Notre Dame beat USC despite seeing drives stall on far too many occasions. If Kyle Brindza attempts six field goals against Alabama, Notre Dame's probably in trouble.

"Coach Kelly is going to set up some things to actually let us score touchdowns, because we have to," running back Theo Riddick said following Notre Dame's win over USC. "We have to get better at that, being in the red zone."

The other part of this equation deals with Alabama's red zone defense, which is among the best in college football. Opponents have converted red zone opportunities into points about three in every five tries against Alabama this year, although the Tide have allowed 14 touchdowns -- six more than Notre Dame -- on those chances.

But with only 27 opponent red zone attempts (tied for the lowest among FBS teams) at which to look, Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chuck Martin doesn't have a whole lot of tape to work with.

"The few clips when teams get inside their 10 so you can really game plan and organize a good plan, the score is typically 48 to nothing, and there's none of the starters on the field for Alabama," Martin said. "It's hard to game plan against what they do late in the game when they're up by 50 points. That's the other task for them is you're trying to see how you can attack them and what they're going to do against you or certain formations, and you know they've got their backups in and they're just kind of finishing out the game."

A way to fight that unknown is to toss in an unknown as well, as in a play or two Alabama hasn't seen on film. But Kirby Smart's defense -- which prides itself on a "war zone" mentality inside the 20 -- expects some new wrinkles to Notre Dame's red zone offense.

"In a game like this, you got what, five weeks to prepare, you know there's going to be some trick plays that'll be thrown into it," cornerback Dee Milliner said. "You gotta focus in, read your keys and just know when they like to throw in a trick play here or there. We got a great coaching staff that have us prepared when they do run a trick play, just reading our keys and it's up to us to make the plays."

If one of those plays is a wildcat formation with Theo Riddick taking a direct snap or even a fake field goal -- both plays witnessed in practice this week -- the key for Notre Dame is to catch Alabama off guard. The Irish rarely did that during the regular season.

In a championship game, teams will pull out all the stops. Refrigerator Perry scored a touchdown in Super Bowl XX -- although don't expect Notre Dame to use the same line of thinking with its own large defensive tackle.

"I don't want give it away, but they have put the ball in my hands a couple times in practice," Louis Nix joked, hushing his tone and leaning in with a smile. "It's a special option with me and (defensive end Stephon) Tuitt. It's going well. I'll show a pass to him, if I want. I'm a selfish guy so I might just fake it and just keep it. We scored on it a couple times.

"Alabama, be on the lookout for it."

Sunday on CSN: UIC travels to Valparaiso

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Sunday on CSN: UIC travels to Valparaiso

Horizon League basketball returns to CSN on Sunday as UIC travels to Valparaiso. This game tips at 2:00 p.m. live on CSN.

The Flames (11-8, 4-2) have won three straight games and have played pretty good ball after the loss of Dikembe Dixson to a torn ACL. Junior big man Tai Odiase, a Homewood-Flossmoor graduate, is playing well along with former St. Rita product Dominique Matthews.

Valparaiso (15-4, 5-1) is hoping to maintain its conference lead behind senior All-American candidate Alec Peters. The 6-foot-9 senior is averaging 23.9 points and 10.9 rebounds per game on the season.

The Crusaders won the first time these two teams played at UIC on Dec. 30 as Tevonn Walker had 23 points.

Saturday on CSN: Loyola, Illinois State host Missouri Valley opponents

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Saturday on CSN: Loyola, Illinois State host Missouri Valley opponents

CSN will have two Missouri Valley Conference games with local teams on Saturday. 

The first game tips at 3 p.m. live on CSN as Evansville heads to Loyola. The second game tips at 7 p.m. and is also live on CSN as Drake will play at Illinois State.

Loyola (13-7, 3-4) is coming off of a tough road loss in double overtime to Northern Iowa. The Ramblers have been led by senior Milton Doyle this season as the former Marshall star is one of the better guards in the Valley.

Evansville (10-10, 1-6) has dropped five straight games as they're struggling to gain any momentum in conference play. Senior guard Jaylon Brown is having an outstanding season for the Purple Aces as he's putting up 21.2 points per game.

The second matchup has Drake (6-13, 4-3) traveling to Illinois State. The Bulldogs have won three of four games and junior guard Reed Timmer is dangerous while former Saint Viator product Ore Arogundade is having a solid sophomore season. 

Illinois State (15-4, 7-0) is leading the Valley after a huge win over Wichita State as they've won eight straight games. The Redbirds are hoping to make a run to an NCAA tournament bid with another home win.